by Trevor Whenham
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If Group C is being called the group of death for the 2006 World Cup then Group E could rightfully be called the group of serious injury. Ghana, ranked No. 50 in the world as of February, has drawn three teams in the world top 12 to play against. Given that, it would be easy to rule Ghana out. The Czech Republic at No. 2, the U.S. at No. 6 and Italy at No. 12 are well matched and could all beat each other, though, leaving Ghana to sneak right up the middle and into the second round. To add further pressure to this group, no team will want to finish second, since that team will have to play the winner of Group F, which will almost certainly be the powerhouse Brazilian squad.
Two of the teams in this group are in their first World Cup, though neither is inexperienced on the international stage. The Czech Republic is making its debut, but it was part of Czechoslovakia until after the 1994 World Cup. That team made the quarterfinals in 1990. Since independence, the team has had strong showings in Euro 1996 and 2004 and the country won the under-21 European Championships in 2002. Though the team is at No. 2 in the world rankings after several strong years, handicappers have discounted that controversial rating system. Bodog has the Czechs at 24-1 to win the tournament, putting the team behind 9 other nations, including lower-ranked Italy. This is due in part to the fact that Czech Republic needed a playoff to make this year's event.
Ghana is also a first timer. Though the team's senior side is inexperienced internationally, the country has been dominant at the under-17 level. The team won the world championships in 1991 and 1995 and lost in the finals in 1993 and 1997. Coach Ratomir Dujkovic is a soccer gypsy. He led this team to the World Cup after previously coaching national squads in Venezuela, Myanmar and Rwanda. Expectations for the side have diminished somewhat after a disappointing showing at the African Nations Cup.
The U.S. team is at its fifth consecutive World Cup. The Americans were the winners of the first ever World Cup game in 1930, but their proudest moment as a soccer nation came in 1950 when they served up England's first ever World Cup defeat. The team has enjoyed success since Bruce Arena became coach in 1998 after a disappointing run in that year's World Cup, which included an embarrassing loss to Iran. The team turned heads by upsetting Portugal in 2002 on the way to the quarterfinals and have moved up the world rankings steadily. Many believe that this team is at a disadvantage because of the lack of strong competition in their qualifying group. It makes qualification easy, but may not tune them up for the best competition. It wouldn't be a shock to see the team move onto the next round, but at 55-1 to win it all, it is not favored to do so against the Czechs and Italians.
If this group were to be won by history and reputation, Italy would be the runaway victor. It has won three titles, most recently in 1982. Italy was favored when they hosted the 1990 World Cup, but fell to Argentina in the semifinal. It lost in the final in 1994. Since then, though, the team hasn't managed to reach its huge potential, often disappointing at the major tournaments. Italy lost in the quarterfinals in 1998 and South Korea delivered an upset in the second round in 2002. The low point came at Euro 2004 when it didn't make it out of the first round. Marcello Lippi became coach after that loss and has his team in top form. If the team keeps it together they could be dangerous. Bookmakers like their chances. Bodog has made them the fifth choice at 17/2.
Though a case can be made for any of these teams to get through, little can be learned from head-to-head action. Italy, the U.S. and Czechoslovakia were in the same group in 1990. Italy beat both teams, while the Czechs crushed the Americans, 5-1. The Americans have not beaten the Italians in four tries. None of the teams have played each other in a meaningful match in recent times.